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Monday, July 7, 2014

Storytelling vs. Statistics


Some months back, I gave a presentation to a fair sized audience of budding young professionals. The boss did not attend but sent an observer who sat in the back of the room and watched my dog and pony show very closely. I thought it went well and, as I was leaving, the management plant thanked me and said, “You are a wonderful storyteller. That is 90% of presenting.” As a guest, I merely said thank you but gently added that my stories all were linked to facts that I had presented in a few statistical charts in my show and tell.  She shook her head, smiled, and left. Later her boss told me what a success the session had been.

All of this is a preamble to something that I have observed over the last decade or so. An increasing number of people are making bad business decisions because storytelling seems to have overshadowed statistics or, dare I say, facts in decision-making.  Perhaps I am an exception. I have always considered myself something of a data junkie. Never have I resented tedious number crunching to get to the guts of a financial transaction, a media buy, or a forecast for a concept, a business, or even a country. And, if you know me at all, you realize that demographics often drive the bus.

Why do most new businesses fail? Why do most new products fail even from established marketers? To me, it is not lack of effort on the job or inept management. Much of it is a failure to look at the readily available facts or statistics that are in plain sight or can be researched for a bit of money.  A stunning number of people rely on storytelling as their compass. Their friends like it, they saw someone have success with it in another market or nation and they then make an enormous leap of faith based on hearsay or very limited amount of facts.

Your mind can play tricks on you if you become addicted to storytelling. More than once, I have passed out articles or books on a particular subject to colleagues or clients. And, several times people immediately handed them back saying, “Don, I will never read it. Just give me the headlines. I learn everything by talking to people.”

Well. I am a big advocate of business people talking to their customers and prospects and LISTENING. However, I have seen people bet millions on products or services where the timing is clearly wrong, or their chosen location cannot sustain a new player due to weakening demographics or a poor economy. Few of us want to tell a sincere person, especially a friend, that their idea really stinks.  So, if you merely talk to people, you are missing a lot and may be setting yourself up for failure.

Storytelling is important. It beats a ponderous power-point time after time in terms of audience attentiveness. Yet, the stories, to me, need to be tied to some statistical realities.

Finally, remember that con men are all great storytellers. Think about it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com        

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